Silver Screen: Knight and Day *1/2

Silver Screen: Knight and Day *1/2
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Silver Screen: Knight and Day *1/2
Bryan Miller

*1/2

You've got to hand it to Tom Cruise: Dude looks pretty good. At nearly fifty years old, he still appears mostly like he did when he was playing homoerotic beach volleyball with Anthony Edwards in Top Gun, way back in 1986. What's his secret? Perhaps there really is something to Scientology (extremely low thetan count?), or he's draining the youth and vitality out of Katie Holmes like a Tinseltown vampire, or he's got a portrait hanging in his attic of an increasingly withered and decrepit Tom Cruise who shows all the battle scars of having suffered through movies like Mission: Impossible II and The Last Samurai.

What has changed about Cruise over three decades of stardom, gradually but not imperceptibly, is the impish twinkle in his eye, which has intensified into a mad, manic glow. It's not just the Oprah freakout. For years now Cruise has more and more seemed like the prom king come unglued, the most popular guy at Hollywood High who nobody wants to mention just ran screeching onto the quad, pushing past gaggles of dazed cheerleaders, threw himself onto the ground, and started pulling up handfuls of grass and dirt and stuffing them into his mouth while screaming muddymouthed at the sky. It's that kind of public freakout, but drawn out over a long enough timeline that it seems just this side of acceptable.

The point being, it's harder and harder to watch Cruise in a multimillion-dollar motion picture and not be naggingly aware of what seems to be his barely contained insanity. That suits him fine when he's playing overtly crazy characters like Magnolia's fraudulent motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey or Tropic Thunder's foul-mouthed mogul Les Grossman, and it helps add a touch of verisimilitude to his latest character, Knight and Day's Roy Miller, a superspy who is at least a little unhinged.

Just how unhinged Roy Miller is, exactly, is a major plot point in the film. He seems charming enough when he bumps into June (Cameron Diaz), an automotive enthusiast on her way to her sister's wedding, at an airport. The two flirt again on the plane, but when June excuses herself to the bathroom, Miller snaps into action and kills everyone on the plane, including the pilots, then crash lands into a cornfield. He explains to June that she's innocently caught up in an espionage-related calamity involving a tiny new superbattery that a turncoat government agent wants to steal and sell to an arms dealer, but which he, Roy Miller, is attempting to return to its rightful owner, young genius Simon Feck (Paul Dano).

When June returns home, she's picked up by two government agents (Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis) who claim that it is Miller who has gone rogue and stolen the battery. Before she can learn more, Roy shows up again, either to kidnap her or to save her. Thus the two are swept up into a globe-trotting adventure punctuated with flirtatious banter and the kind of stylized American movie violence in which multiple murders function as punchlines and foreplay. It all leads up to a by-the-numbers climax that is either full of plot twists or exactly what viewers would expect, depending on just how seriously they expect Tom Cruise to take himself as lothario and action hero.

There comes a point when mediocrity is actually worse than outright badness, when a project is pitched so unambitiously toward the center-- played safely and executed without major flaws-- that it makes viewers yearn for the missteps and overreaches that at least give a movie character. Director James Mangold is a purveyor of just that brand of mediocrity, having helmed the flavorless Oscar bait Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted, the cloying chick flick Kate and Leopold, the nonsensical psychodrama Identity, and the uninspired remake of 3:10 to Yuma. (Even his best movie, Walk the Line, stuck close to the accepted biopic formula.)

Knight and Day is precisely that kind of mediocre. It's frontloaded with expensive-looking effects, exotic locales, and A-list talent, yet there's nothing distinguishing about the passable shootout sequences or the familiar plot turns or even its raison d'action, as generic a McGuffin as the archetypal Maltese falcon. The only X-factor is star Cruise, whose potential turn toward self-parody is just tantalizing enough to be disappointing when he retreats back to his familiar dashing man of action personae, one that's less convincing with every mounting personal oddity.